Reading Between the Lines with Robert Olen Butler



Two thirds of the way through a 90-day book tour surrounding the release of his new novel, Perfume River, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Florida State University professor Robert Olen Butler stopped by the Ringling College of Art and Design last night to share readings from the work and discuss his exploratory approach to the craft with the gathered community. In Butler’s 22nd fictional novel, the legacy of the Vietnam War serves as the backdrop for an examination of the power and fragility of family as one North Florida household struggles with old divisions. Before taking the stage, the 71-year-old author took a moment with SRQ to talk voice, the compost heap and trying to make sense out of the chaos.

This is not the first time you’ve explored the Vietnam War in your work, including A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Was there something else you wanted to say with Perfume River? Butler: For me, the act of writing a work of literary fiction is more an act of exploration than it is of expression. I don’t know what it is I’m trying to say until I say it and the only saying of it is embedded in this object that you are not meant to understand in an abstract, thematic or theoretical way. That’s not how you’re meant to encounter a work of literary art. You’re meant to thrum, like a string vibrating on an instrument.

My aesthetic philosophy about the process of creating literature is that I don’t have anything that I know that I want to say and then write a book to say it. That is, in fact, the antithesis of what the artist does. Art does not come from the mind. It does not come from the rational, analytical faculties. Art comes from the place where you dream—from your unconscious. We are creating an object like a painting on the wall, like a symphony, like a ballet—it’s an object of the senses, a different way of knowing.

Then the impetus to write comes from this need to understand? For the artist, we are responding, as all artists do, to our moment-to-moment life of a body on the planet and therefore the life of the emotions. And if you are of the body and those abstracting ideas and theories—religions and political beliefs and so forth—if they let you down at all your impression of life is that all is chaos. The artist, however, believes that there’s meaning and order behind that chaos but does not know what it is until she creates this narrative object which embodies that vision.

You’ve met acclaim writing from myriad voices crossing gender and ethnic lines. How do you capture such a voice authentically? There has to be a certain deep and intensive direct experience with the other. The things that seem to divide us are less important than the things that in fact we hold in common. We all intuitively understand that artists have not only the capacity, but even the right and even the obligation to leap across differences that I think are even more profound than gender or race or ethnicity. The things that, in this day and age, particularly seem to divide us are crucial but they do yield to sensitive and inspired artistic imagination. They must, or we’re all lost and no one can communicate with each other.

Keep an eye out through upcoming issues of SRQ magazine for the full interview.

Pictured: Robert Olen Butler. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

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